Category Archives: Pop Culture

English Studies Abroad: A Gest of Robyn Hode

Sherwood Forest

For anyone who has known me for any length of time, one fact quickly becomes apparent: I’m an avid Robin Hood fan. I have been for as long as I can remember. My first clear memory is watching Errol Flynn’s The Adventures of  Robin Hood, and my college dorm room was decorated with a poster of Flynn in his best heroic pose from the film – that poster now graces my dining room wall. I have an extensive collection of Robin Hood memorabilia that I’ve been amassing for over 20 years. All of this to say, I simply could not leave the outlaw off the syllabus in this course, even though we are not going to make it to Nottingham. This post only serves as a small snippet of an introduction to the character.

One of the first mentions of Robin Hood recorded is in William Langland’s fourteenth-century Piers Plowman. The site “Robin Hood: The Facts and the Fiction” contains a good online resource, as it pulls out from the Skeat version of the three parallel texts (A, B, and C) the passages related to the outlaw legend. The most significant is in Passus B.V in which the sin Sloth lists his shortcomings:

I can nouȝte perfitly my pater-noster as the prest it syngeth,
But I can rymes of Robyn Hood and Randolf erle of Chestre,
Ac neither of owre lorde ne of owre lady the leste that euere was made. (B.V.401-3)

In a similar fashion as Saint Augustine who castigates his younger self at the beginning of the Confessions for loving to read the stories of Aeneas and Dido rather than to focus on God, Sloth here admits to knowing the stories of Robin Hood rather than any prayers or Christian stories. The implication is that the stories of Robin Hood are well-known popular tales at this time. In the guide to an exhibit at the Robbins Library in 2006-07, John Chandler writes, “Sloth’s familiarity with drinking songs about Robin Hood, but utter lack of knowledge of things spiritual, also reflects the concern of the Church for the souls of people who likely attended mass grudgingly, but could readily recite popular songs.” This echoes Augustine’s disgust with himself over the same issue. And, yet, we all know the popular stories continue to be “more fun.” As a side note, this particular line also plays a role in my interest in memory in Passus V of Piers Plowman. Directly afterwards Sloth talks about forgetting his responsibilities and what he owes to others, making forgetfulness a part of the sin he personifies. The Robin Hood line too speaks to memory in that he can remember what he wants to, just not what he “should.” Selective memory, we call it today.

It is this popularity that makes Robin Hood  a frequent presence in early printed books. For the first part of the week (which was, again, interrupted by snow – I’m beginning to feel that Mother Nature has a grudge), we read selections from the TEAMS Robin Hood and Other OutlawsIn particular, we read the “Early Ballads and Tales,” which mostly originated in the fifteenth century. For whom were these tales written? In their introduction to the text, editors Stephen Knight and Thomas H. Ohlgren state:

The audience has been a matter of speculation. Some have thought it was close to the discontented peasantry who were central to the 1381 revolt (Hilton, 1976); another view saw the ballads as a set of general complaints from the lower gentry (Holt, 1989). Neither party has accounted for the lack of agrarian and tenurial issues, apart from the unusual episode of the knight in the Gest. Another commentator has seen the dynamic of the ballads in the struggle for power in towns themselves and the forest as a fantasy land of freedom (Tardif, 1983). As a result of these debates there now seems general agreement that the audience was not single, that it represented the social mobility of the late Middle Ages, and the myth was diffused across a wide variety of social groupings who were alive to the dangers of increasingly central authority, whether over town, village, or forest (Coss, 1985).

The “general agreement” that these tales indicate the “social mobility of the late Middle Ages” and that they appeal to a “wide variety of social groupings” seems like an accurate and useful way to think about them.

The early ballads are quite different from the Robin Hood that has evolved down to us today. Yet, at the same time, we see familiar characters and characteristics. Robin’s home in the greenwood (wherever that greenwood may be – Sherwood Forest or ones nearby) is fairly constant. One of my favorite memories is visiting the Major Oak in Sherwood (photo below). It is an incredibly peaceful location, and it is easy enough to imagine Robin and his merry men living a life of unabashed freedom under its branches.

Sherwood Forest

Also, his companion Little John is generally always nearby. The other familiar figures get added over time. Maid Marian, for instance, seems to be an addition when the tale is transformed into plays performed on May Day. Robin’s association with the spring is seen in the early ballads. In “Robin Hood and the Monk,” the tale begins, “Erly in a May mornyng” (l. 10). In “Robin Hood and the Potter,” the season is summer, yet no less descriptive of nature and its bounty:

In schomer, when the leves spryng,
The bloschoms on every bowe,
So merey doyt the berdys syng
Yn wodys merey now. (ll. 1-4)

It is no stretch to see how these stories, which laud the greenwood, the newness of leaves, and the singing of birds, became associated with the May Day celebrations. And it is no surprise that Robin needed a lady; thus, Marian was born.

Sherwood Forest

The outlaw himself is not the noble gentleman who only thinks of the poor and the plight of the common man. He is the common man in the ballads, described as a yeoman, and we see him frequently not showing what we have come to know as his trademark chivalrous mercy to his opponents. Indeed, many of the texts end with the death of the opponent. For instance, in “Robin Hood and the Monk,” Little John unceremoniously hauls the monk who betrayed his friend to the ground and kills him as another man Much kills the page with him simply to keep him quiet:

John smote of the munkis hed,
No longer wolde he dwell;
So did Moch the litull page,
For ferd lest he wolde tell. (ll. 203-6)

It is a bloody scene with little in the way of any kind of mercy for those who oppose the outlaw or his men. Robin Hood’s famous nobility and chivalrous nature are later inventions, added and manipulated for the needs of his various audiences throughout the centuries.

For the second part of the week, we turned away from the late medieval origins of Robin Hood and looked instead at the evolution of the legend and its continued popularity. To that end, we read Stephen Knight’s article “Remembering Robin Hood.” Also, while it feels a bit odd to do so, I assigned my students to listen to/watch a lecture I gave a couple of years ago on this very subject, entitled “Robin Hood, the Once and Future Hero.” The lecture is here for those interested in it:

My point in this lecture is that there are many qualities the Robin Hood legends possess that have kept them alive and vibrant for centuries. One of the major qualities is that greenwood I mentioned earlier. While there are challenges in being exiled from society, “outside” of the “law,” there is also freedom in not having to answer to authority, in seeing those who are corrupt receive the justice they deserve (but might not receive if protected by society). Robin is often depicted, in whatever incarnation, as freely roaming the woods, doing what he wants when he wants to do it, making his own law and living his own code. This is appealing to a variety of people, not the least of which would be children who sometimes chafe against adult authority, which explains why the legend became such a popular children’s story:

[H]is popularity with children and the relatively powerless continued long after the popular vogue of the other medieval romance survivals faded…[H]is identification with unsophisticated readers, especially children, during his extraordinary extended vogue may well explain, even though there is no categorical evidence, his peculiar place in the company of children. (Brockman 68)

Or, as Joseph Falaky Nagy, writes:

The narrative tradition about Robin Hood, which throve in folklore and the popular literature of England from the medieval period to the nineteenth century, reflects the worldwide fascination with the figure of the outlaw, the man who exists beyond human society and has adventures which would be impossible for normal members of society in their normal social environments. (198)

Robin Hood is in a position, that space between civilized and uncivilized, doing what we only think about doing, that speaks to those who, for one reason or another, seek an escape from limitations.

In the Weekly Activity for Robin Hood, the students were asked to pick a film featuring the character (alas, with the exception of the animated Disney version, as it is an “easy” choice) in order to think about its representation of the outlaw, particularly considering how it stacks up against the original tales. There are many lists available of Robin Hood films; one, for example, is on IMDb, if you feel like a marathon (or you could just raid my DVD collection!). What, might you ask, is my favorite? The Adventures of Robin Hood will always have a special place in my heart and, thus, is in a class of its own. Also, it tends to be the iconic image of the hero. The live-action Disney The Story of Robin Hood with Richard Todd is also one I return to often; I think the music makes it particularly special. Interestingly enough, in that one, Robin does not start off as a nobleman. The silent version with Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., is incredible; the full version is available on YouTube, which I have included below. The athleticism of Fairbanks combined with its charming simplicity is, in a word, wonderful. (I also have a soft spot for it because I received as a gift several original props from the film. They are a centerpiece of my collection.) The most recent Robin Hood with Russell Crowe is disappointing on many levels. Although it attempts to return to the grittiness of the original tales, it fails to capture the lightness and freedom so inherent in the legend. It does, nonetheless, speak to the idea that the story is malleable and can be applied to different situations in various time periods (here, Magna Carta).

Class links:

Next week: we visit Oxford and Tolkien.


PS In my spare time (what little there is!), I am reading the King Raven trilogy by Stephen R. Lawhead. It reimagines the Robin Hood legend in Wales and sets it during the time of William Rufus, son of William the Conqueror. It is a new take on the story, but, so far, it is working well, and I am far enough in that I can recommend it.


Brockman, B.A. “Children and the Audiences of Robin Hood.” South Atlantic Review 48.2 (1983): 67-83. Print.

Chandler, John H. Robin Hood: Development of a Popular Hero. Exhibition Guide. Robbins Library. University of Rochester, 2006-07. Web. 18 Feb. 2014.

Dixon-Kennedy, Mike. The Robin Hood Handbook: The Outlaw in History, Myth and LegendUnited Kingdom: Sutton, 2006. Print.

Fortunaso, Robert. “Robin Hood: The Facts and the Fiction.” N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Feb. 2014.

Holt, J.C. Robin Hood. London: Thames and Hudson, 1993. Print.

Knight, Stephen. “Remembering Robin Hood.” European Journal of English Studies 10.2 (2006): 149-61. Print.

Nagy, Joseph Falaky. “The Paradoxes of Robin Hood.” Folklore 91.2 (1980): 198-210. Print.

Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales. Eds. Stephen Knight and Thomas H. Ohlgren. TEAMS Middle English Text Series. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1997. Web. 18 Feb. 2014.


Filed under Medieval Movies, Medievalism, Pop Culture, Robin Hood, Teaching, Travels

English Studies Abroad: Arthurian Texts, Once and Future

This week in English Studies Abroad has been Arthurian readings and discussions. You might ask, how do you cover Arthur in one week? The obvious truth is you can’t. The subject is vast, wide, and never-ending. So settle in for a long winter’s post! My approach was to tackle some of the medieval texts on the first day of class and then move into the post-medieval Arthurian tradition on the second in order to get a sense of how authors have manipulated, deployed, and co-opted the legends.

Some thoughts of the week…

Continuing in the spirit of considering our readings in light of locations we plan to visit, we took a look at the sections related to Stonehenge in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum BritanniaeThe story goes that Aurelius wanted to erect a monument to honor those loyal men who had been slain by the treacherous Saxon Hengist. Merlin advises that he relocate the Giant’s Dance from Ireland:

“If you are desirous,” said Merlin, “to honour the burying-place of these men with an ever-lasting monument, send for the Giant’s Dance, which is in Killaraus, a mountain in Ireland. For there is a structure of stones there, which none of this age could raise, without a profound knowledge of the mechanical arts. They are stones of a vast magnitude and wonderful quality; and if they can be placed here, as they are there, round this spot of ground, they will stand for ever.”  (Book VIII, Chapter X)

Pulling Stonehenge even more fully into the Arthurian tradition, Merlin is accompanied by Uther Pendragon on this expedition, fittingly so given that their mission leads to a battle with the Irish, who must be thoroughly routed. I am always amused at how Merlin, his mischievous, devlish side coming out, sends the men to try their luck at moving the large stones while he simply watches and chuckles at their fruitless efforts. It is reminiscent of the later iconic story of Arthur and the Sword in the Stone, when everyone else tries and tries to remove it to no avail. Here Merlin waits until they pretty much give up and then he comes to their rescue:

Merlin laughed at their vain efforts, and then began his own contrivances. When he had placed in order the engines that were necessary, he took down the stones with an incredible facility, and gave directions for carrying them to the ships, and placing them therein. This done, they with joy set sail again, to return to Britain; where they arrived with a fair gale, and repaired to the burying-place with the stones. (Book VIII, Chapter XII)

Of course, the exact nature of these “contrivances” and “engines” is left to the imagination. After all, we can’t give away all the secrets, can we? I try to imagine the ships it would require to sail away with Stonehenge, but it boggles the mind.

Drawing of Stonehenge, 1440 MS (click for news story)

Reading further in Geoffrey’s Historia, we focused in particular on the sections detailing Uther’s reign and then Arthur’s origin story. Our discussion led us to the collective origin stories of Merlin (parentage, early history, etc.) and what he is both capable of as well as the choices he makes and their effects on the Arthurian world. In this case, the choice to use his skills to transform Uther into the form of Gorlois in order to sleep with Igerna is a trade-off – an anti-Christian act which brings about the creation of the great king Arthur:

The same night therefore she conceived of the most renowned Arthur, whose heroic and wonderful actions have justly rendered his name famous to posterity. (Book VIII, Chapter XIX)

The ramifications of this choice – his “ends justify the means” attitude – is not fully explored by Geoffrey, but later authors, of course, run with it. In the discussion of Merlin’s parentage, I was even able to work in my previous research into the role of his mother in various incarnations of the story. She’s quite a character, particularly with her ability to manipulate speech in order to protect herself and her son.

Perceval, receiving the sword from the Fisher King, c. 1330, Bibliothèque nationale de France

As an example of Arthurian romances, I chose Chrétien de Troyes’ Le Conte du Graal. There were a couple of reasons for this choice. One, a couple of students in the class took my Middle Ages class last semester and read Cligès and Le Chevalier de la Charrette; thus, I wanted to assign a different text. Two, Le Conte du Graal provides opportunities for different discussions: the representation of Arthur, the development and definition of a knight (and an Arthurian knight at that), the tradition behind the popular concept of the Grail, certain customs (real or fictional) Chrétien embeds in the narrative, the interaction between the religious and secular, the romance form (with a digression into the English/French similarities and differences), the French interest in and contributions to the Matters of Britain, among other topics. It’s a rich text and serves as a useful window for our brief foray into the medieval Arthurian world.

Also, speaking of mothers, we have here a fascinating one. She prevents Perceval from knowing about his true heritage in an attempt to protect him – and herself, as it happens, from more grief. Her advice shapes Perceval’s early development in the text, even as he misinterprets her. Her death occurs early, yet she continues to influence his choices, requiring him to leave the side of his lady out of concern for her.

On a personal note, I have always been particularly fascinated by the Fisher King (coincidentally, another figure I have spent a great deal of time researching in the past – our teaching reflects our own interests, no?) and was again upon this re-reading. This time around, I was struck by his soothing qualities. He is in great pain, unable to stand, though he lifts himself up to the best of his ability in order to honor his guest. His demeanor is no doubt courtly and courteous, as any number of characters are in this and other romances. Yet, his persona appears more than that as I read, as if his courtliness is less performance (as so often it comes across) and more an intricate part of him. His disability seems to soften (but certainly not weaken) him. Perhaps part of this impression lies in his willingness to express his suffering as indicated by one of his few lines of dialogue (in translation, as we read it in class):

“Friend, now it is time for bed. Don’t be offended if I leave you and go into my own chambers to sleep; and whenever you are ready you may lie down out here. I have no strength in my body and will have to be carried.” (422)

Though we are given little insight into his history or his societal role, I would hesitate to say – at least as I mull my reaction this time – that the Fisher King is rendered “real” by his hardship.

As a segue between the medieval Arthurian world and the post-medieval one, I had assigned Tolkien’s recently-released The Fall of Arthur; however, I was a bit overly ambitious in the amount of reading assigned and thus made this one more optional. It does, however, fulfill its intended role well, as a work written in Old English alliterative verse at the same time that it pays homage to the literary tradition concerning the collapse of Arthur’s kingdom. Even from the beginning of the poem, Tolkien captures the Old English sense of elegy while marrying it to the collapse of the Arthurian world:

As when the earth dwindles in autumn days
and soon to its setting the sun is waning
under mournful mist, then a man will lust
for work and wandering, while yet warm floweth
blood sun-kindled, so burned his soul
after long glory for a last assay
of pride and prowess, to the proof setting
will unyielding in war with fate. (17)

I look forward to spending more time with this work in a future class.

Cross discovered at Glastonbury Abbey in c. 1190, claims to be the burial site of Arthur; Engraved: HIC IACIT SEPVLTVS INCLITVS REX ARTHVRIVS, IN INSVLA AVALONIA. [“Here lies entombed the renowned King Arthur on the Isle of Avalon”]

Due to the fact it is a rather well-known modern rendition of Arthurian literature as well as the fact it conveniently paired well with our other readings, I chose  to assign the first sixty pages of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon. This section parallels Arthur’s origin story that we read in Geoffrey of Monmouth, providing fodder for discussion, particularly as Bradley’s work is so focused on telling the story from the women’s perspective, which is not a concern of the Historia. There is an echo in Mists of the tension between the Christian and pagan found in early medieval texts influenced by or written in the time of conversion. At the beginning of the novel, Merlin and Viviane identify a need and a desire to allow the two to live in harmony n parallel worlds; as Viviane states:

“We must have our own leader, one who can command all of Britain. Otherwise, when they mass against us, all Britain will fall, and for hundreds and hundreds of  years, we will lie in ruins beneath the Saxon barbarians. The worlds will drift irrevocably apart and the memory of Avalon will not remain even in legend, to give hope to mankind. No, we must have a leader who can command loyalty from all the people of both the Britains – the Britain of the priests, and the world of the mists, rules from Avalon. Healed by this Great King . . . the worlds shall once again come together, a world with room for the Goddess and for the Christ, the cauldron and the cross. And this leader shall make us one.” (14-5)

Geoffrey’s “most renowned Arthur, whose heroic and wonderful actions have justly rendered his name famous to posterity” is expanded by Bradley into a king who will “command loyalty from the people of both the Britains – the Britain of the priests, and the world of the mists” and who “shall make room for the Goddess and for the Christ.” There is still the sense of manipulation by Merlin as he orchestrates the creation of this king, though the story shifts with Igraine’s fore-knowledge (and her reluctance and initial disgust) that she has been chosen as mother to this savior. Bradley, intentionally or unintentionally, parallels Igraine’s story with that of the Virgin Mary, whose pregnancy as well as the special qualities of her son are also foretold. And, just to belabor a point, we have returned once again to the subject of mothers.

Bradley weaves in the concept of the Waste Land, so integral to the Fisher King narratives, in a rather effective way. Viviane explains to Igraine about the relationship between a king and his land:

“In the old days . . . the High King was bound with his life to the fortunes of the land, and pledged . . . that if the land comes upon disaster or perilous times, he will die that the land may live. And should he refuse this sacrifice, the land would perish.” (22-3)

The barren Waste Land of the Fisher King is so affected, it is often said, because he himself has been rendered impotent. Bradley inserts this idea into her novel by claiming that kings take blood oaths, and, if they refuse to honor these oaths, their people and lands will suffer the consequences. It is a much less metaphoric connection between the king and his land, attributing to the lord an active role in maintaining the health of his kingdom. Any may sacrifice his blood to counter disaster (or refuse to do so), yet, in the metaphoric reading, an impotent king can do little to rectify his situation (on his own at least – a hero is required).

Special side note: Stonehenge makes its appearance again in a story rife with Druids and the “old religions.”  It is referenced as a “ring of stones . . . in a great circle” that is “precisely calculated . . . so that even those who did not know the secrets of the priests could tell when eclipses were to come, and trace the movements of stars and seasons” (55). And, thus, across the centuries, the record of Merlin’s deed in bringing Stonehenge to England echoes in the modern Arthurian tradition.

A section of the film version of The Mists of Avalon:

In class, we split up into smaller groups to take a more in-depth look at some of the writings in Alan Lupack’s Modern Arthurian Literature, particularly the sections on “The Victorians” and “The Modern Period.” We did some small group bonding while discussing different readings, getting a feel for the reasons authors co-opt the Arthurian world. Its flexibility, malleability, the sheer magnitude of the stories and characters, and the possibilities of a “once and future king” were theories we explored.

As before, here is the link to our ongoing Google Map project. And this is the link to a collection of some of our online readings in Readlists. Our Storify journals are also taking shape here.

Next week’s stop: London!



Annis, Matthew. “The Fisher King.” The Camelot Project. University of Rochester, 2007. Web. 26 Jan. 2014.

Bradley, Marion Zimmer. The Mists of Avalon. New York: Knopf, 1982. Print.

Chrétien de Troyes. “The Story of the Grail (Perceval).” Arthurian Romances. Trans. William W. Kibler. New York: Penguin, 1991. 381-494. Print.

Geoffrey of Monmouth. “Arthurian Passages from The History of the Kings of Britain.” The Camelot Project. University of Rochester, n.d. Web. 26 Jan. 2014.

Modern Arthurian Literature. Ed. Alan Lupack. New York: Garland, 1992. Print.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Fall of Arthur. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. Print.


Filed under Arthurian, Medievalism, Non-Medieval, Pop Culture, Teaching, Travels

A Plague on the History Channel

I’ve just spent a few minutes stocking up my Netflix account with a set of films and documentaries with a vaguely medieval theme, ranging in quality from “looks like a pleasant enough way to kill a couple of hours” to “how bad could it possibly be?” This is one of the ways I like to entertain myself during breaks from teaching, and sometimes it pays off with a new short scene to use or reference in a lecture, or at least with greater (if sometimes painful) knowledge of what my students may have seen or heard recently. One of the documentaries that popped up during my search is a hideous misfire by the History Channel called The Dark Ages (A&E Home Video, Dir. C. Cassel, 2007), which I actually watched during a break this past year. The Dark Ages was merely bad—poor production elements, questionable research, and people who looked as if they wished they were elsewhere. I watched it and forgot it.

The Dark Ages DVD, however, harbored a dark secret—a second documentary, The Plague (A&E Home Video, Dir. R. Gardner, 2005), which was presumably deemed so terrible that it was never given an independent release and instead was hitched onto The Dark Ages‘ bonus features rather like a surprise yersinia pestis-carrying flea on a rat. I watched this second excremental documentary in a state of disbelief—and, caught somewhere between horror and grudging wonder, I offer the following comments. In the interest of getting on with my day, I’ll limit myself here to just five moments in The Plague that made me want to scream out my pain and agony and then track down the writer and director to make them suffer as I have suffered.


1. The narration
The story this documentary and its guest experts (who acquit themselves reasonably well and, I assume, had no idea what was going to be done to their efforts) are trying to tell is already quite dramatic enough–the Great Mortality (the actual name used in the 14th century for the plague; “Black Death” wasn’t coined until the 19th century) wiped out something close to half the population of Eurasia in the space of a few years, and left a fundamentally different geopolitical and socioeconomic world behind. Apparently this wasn’t thought to be enough to sustain the interest of the target audience of this documentary (children? Intelligent border collies? Steven Seagal fans? Steven Seagal?), so the producers tracked down a voice-over actor who contributed a passable impression of the movie-trailer guy (“In a world where…”) and gave him a script that also sounds like a bad movie trailer, so that the narration provides us with grimly-intoned but oddly silly lines like “they had no idea that within the ships were cargoes of food, textiles…and death.” One assumes that, in fact, the crew of the average 14th century merchant ship did know that at least two of those things were down there, unless sailors were routinely shocked when they’d peer down into the ship’s hold: “Say, Guiseppe, where did all these carefully-stowed containers of cinnamon, pepper, and assorted foodstuffs of the East come from? And is that a waterproof-wrapped selection of costly silks brocaded with silver thread down there, or am I nuts?”

Oh, and while we’re on the voice work…

2. The silly, silly accents
Admittedly, this is a pet peeve of mine–movies and documentaries that want us to understand that the person speaking is NBOA (Not British Or American), but that don’t trust us to read subtitles. The solution, and it’s apparently so obvious that even the director of The Plague figured it out, is to bring in actors to put on fake and hilarious accents so we know they’re playing foreigners. In this documentary, there are “Mongols,” “French,” and “Italian” speakers in addition to English speakers (and, of course, the Movie Trailer guy). Leaving aside for the moment the problem of sticking modern versions of these accents on the characters, and the fact that they’re all speaking modern English anyway, it’s hard to take the whole thing seriously when half the speakers sound like Peter Sellers. The whole thing reaches the height of inanity when a voice-over, purportedly that of Italian chronicler Gabriel di Mussis, speaks on the horror of the plague: “Alla-mighty a-God, son ava de entire-a human-a race, we are-a wallowing in-a the mire av manifold-a wickedness…” I assume the voice actor was wearing a bushy black mustache, holding a plate of spaghetti and meatballs, and recording his lines on break from helping his brother Luigi to fight Donkey Kong. Later, the same actor reads an account by Agnolo di Tuola of the early mass graves dug in the Italian countryside, presumably not realizing that his I’m-a-da-pizza-guy delivery somewhat undermines the gravity of the lines: “In-a many-a places, great-a peets were dug and-a piled-a deep with-a da multitude of-a da dead…”

3. The presentation of various popular legends as fact
There are a few really egregious examples here–my favorite is the recounting of a well-known (and, quite possibly, true) story about the Mongol army using “crude catapults” to toss plague victims into the city of Kaffa. The narrative seems a little confused about whether or not this happened:
“While the story might be more legend than fact, the Mongol pestilence spreads to the townspeople of Kaffa. But while these facts seem clear, a mystery remains…”
I should say so. For starters, what facts are we talking about here? Why bother including the disclaimer immediately before asserting that the catapult-a-plague strategy was real? How, exactly, do apocryphal stories spread disease? And while we’re at it, is it worth mentioning that plague could also be spread quite easily between two clashing armies, with or without what the narrator (in another of his Movie Trailer moments) calls “the first example of germ warfare”?

4. A World Gone To Hell
I lost count of the number of variations on this particular theme–it’s almost the theme of the entire film. I counted at least half-a-dozen actual references to “hell on earth” or “a world gone to hell.” It’s not a question of whether things were really very bad in the late 1340s–they absolutely were. The problem is that these lines, almost invariably, are accompanied either by pictures of actual fire (even if that means just showing a torch on a wall) or by totally incongruous images (such as a bored-looking Jewish merchant named “Agamnet” or something similar, whose performer was apparently chosen specifically for his ability to make Jewish merchants look shifty and untrustworthy, but who here seems to be wondering whether he left the oven on). Apparently the idea of people actually dying of a disease they couldn’t explain and couldn’t stop isn’t horrifying enough, but a picture of a large candle is meant to make us widdle ourselves in horror.

5. Joan of England
The documentary builds its narrative around a number of key figures (among them Pope Clement VI, the physician Guy de Chauliac, and Agamnet). One of the major plotlines revolves around Joan of England, the teenage daughter of the English king Edward III. Since essentially the only significant thing anyone knows about Joan is that she died in 1348 on her way to Castile to meet her fiancé, the documentary has to work extra-hard to build some kind of suspense around her story. It fails utterly to do this, opting instead for a series of tooth-achingly-ironic ruminations on the elaborate security precautions and vast personal guard her father expended on getting her safely to Castile: “Along with many distinguished clergymen and diplomats, 100 bowmen will make the journey will make the journey to protect this…precious cargo. But their precautions will come to nothing. Within a year, almost all of them will be dead...” Later, in case we’d forgotten, we are reminded, “Joan is perhaps the most well-guarded woman in Europe right now…but archers and castle walls cannot shield her from an unseen enemy. The phantom, the plague, strikes randomly.”
By the time Joan finally grows ill, we are fully expecting an over-the-top moment, and even here the documentary goes beyond our wildest hopes and fears. As we watch the actress playing Joan laugh and toss her hair fetchingly with her attendants, the narrator intones, “Joan, princess of England, favorite daughter of the king of England, does not survive. Like almost half the population of Europe, she falls victim…” [dramatic pause, while church bells begin to chime] “…to the Black Death. Her father, Edward III, is powerless to do anything but mourn.” And the scene fades out, but not before we are treated to a fade-in of magnified green-tinted yersina pestis bacteria and a brief image of a skull over Joan’s face.

There’s plenty more that was equally ridiculous–the hammy overacting of the Flagellants; the constant re-use of a limited amount of re-enactment footage (so that peasant burials in Italy, France, Germany, and England all involve suspiciously familiar-looking peasants); the shots of Joan of England playing “Ring Around the Rosey” with her friends, seemingly without the connect-the-dots irony which limns the rest of her story; the depiction of prostitutes in plague-era Germany as, apparently, bawdy Italians; and on and on.

If you have the opportunity and are of a Mystery Science Theater 3000 temperament, I recommend hunting down the full documentary and treating yourself to an unparalleled viewing experience. If you take the rather narrow view that something calling itself a “documentary” ought to resist forced melodrama or, indeed, be in any way based on documentary evidence, then you can probably afford to skip it.

In the meantime, does anyone have any recommendations for me to add to my Winter Recess viewing list?



Filed under 14th Century, History, Medieval Movies, Medievalism, Pop Culture

A Medieval Mind?

Those who know me (or, more to the point, those who know that many of my “medieval instincts” were instilled by Sherri Olson at the University of Connecticut) will know that I can sometimes be a bit sensitive about the modern tendency to use “the Middle Ages”–or “Medieval Times,” or the ever-popular “Dark Ages”–as a convenient catch-all for “things that we think we’re better than.” I like to think that I’m not fanatical about this–I do generally manage to differentiate between the harmless anachronisms of The Pillars of the Earth or the silliness of A Knight’s Tale and the real and damaging habits of mind that equate “Middle Ages” with either “benighted” or “magical,” i.e., the “dark” and “light” myths of Medieval history.

Obviously, a preface like that means that I’m about to get on a soapbox on a high horse on another soapbox. Today, it’s about last week’s New Yorker article on Michele Bachmann–or, more specifically, about the responses to that article.

For those who missed the article itself: Ryan Lizza, a political writer who has done a number of profiles of political figures for The New Yorker, spent some time on the campaign trail with Minnesota Representative and current Republican/Tea Party Presidential candidate Michele Bachmann and wrote a history of Bachmann’s religious philosophy as part of his profile of her. He focused (among other things) on her admiration for Francis Schaeffer, a conservative Evangelical Christian theologian who is most well-known for his book A Christian Manifesto and, within the Evangelical community, for a documentary series titled “How Should We Then Live?” As Lizza writes, “In the films, Schaeffer…condemns the influence of the Italian Renaissance, the Enlightenment, Darwin, secular humanism, and postmodernism.” Bachmann has cited this series in her speeches as a “profound influence on…my life.”

Predictably, this has led to responses from Bachmann’s critics and from academics (with some sizable overlap between the two groups) railing against Bachmann’s (or Schaeffer’s) worldview as “medieval.” The response “Michele’s Medieval Mind,” authored by Laurie Fendrich and published on the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s website on August 11, is a typical example.

Fendrich’s essay offers the following summation of Schaeffer’s work:

“To Schaeffer, the secular humanism born in the Renaissance marked a wrong turn for humanity. The solution to the twin modern problems—meaningless lives and moral relativism—unleashed by the Renaissance lay in returning to the absolutism of the Christianity that ruled Europe before the Renaissance. (Never mind that, up until the Reformation, all of Western European Christianity = Catholicism.)”

Fendrich errs in several particulars here. It is, for instance, incorrect to cede that Schaeffer’s desire for a return to a pre-Reformation Christian absolutism is informed by anything like a full understanding of the historical periods involved. Schaeffer’s work expresses a nostalgic impulse for an imagined and somewhat idealized past; it doesn’t necessarily attach to recognizably historical fact. That this is a defining quality of reactionary thought (such as that represented by Schaeffer’s anti-humanism) is perhaps self-evident, as has been suggested by work reflecting on other lost and lamented pasts, such as Svetlana Boym’s reflection on post-Communist Russia’s romanticization of the Soviet era in The Future of Nostalgia (2002) or Dennis Walder’s dissection of the aftermath of Colonialism in Postcolonial Nostalgias (2010). Indeed, Schaeffer’s own work argues for a more historically-minded Protestantism (note that Schaeffer does not suggest a return to Catholicism), but also looks forward (as all nostalgic literature ultimately must) in How Should We Then Live? to enjoin his readers to speak out against “authoritarian Government” (256). That Schaeffer’s particular brand of Christian thought should become a standard of one of the leaders of the Tea Party suddenly makes a great deal of sense–but not if one dismisses his theology as mere backward-looking primitivism.

Further, Fendrich’s blithe reduction of pre-Reformation pan-European Christianity to a simple equation suggests, one hopes inadvertently, that medieval Catholicism is reducible to a historical singularity–one orthodoxy practiced with equal assiduity and scrupulous uniformity across a continent and a millennium. This is so far from our knowledge of medieval Christianity as to require no further refutation, though a brief survey of medieval history, literature, philosophy, art, architecture, or any other subject would provide a preponderance of evidence.

Fendrich continues: “Liberals see only irrationality, anti-intellectualism and stupidity in Schaeffer’s ideas—most obviously, in his criticism of the Renaissance.”

My own status as a politically liberal medievalist (who actually finds a great deal to admire in medieval European intellectual life) apparently doesn’t fit into Fendrich’s preference for simple binaries. More significantly, Fendrich makes the same error made by many in academia, and by extremists on both ends of current American political discourse, in assuming that views in opposition to their own can only be arrived at from a position of ignorance (willful or inadvertent) or “stupidity.” Schaeffer was far from ignorant, stupid, or anti-intellectual–he was, in fact, a intelligent, well-read religious philosopher whose worldview was arrived at from different premises and conclusions than those of a modern secular humanist. To differ from the received orthodoxies of the intellectual majority is not inherently to be “stupid” or “anti-intellectual”–a fact, incidentally, that any medieval university (and not a few monastic colleges) would have been able to teach by example.

It’s important to note that Fendrich never revisits or modifies this characterization, and,  as we will see below, later explicitly allies herself with the liberal viewpoint. This is, at best, unfortunate. To resort, or appear to resort, to insults in characterizing Schaeffer’s philosophy demeans the seriousness of the modern Evangelical movement in whose name Bachmann claims to speak. Further, it ill serves the intellectual purposes of Fendrich’s essay to lower herself to name-calling (even through the transparent trick of ventriloquizing those slurs through straw man “liberals”) and thereby to miss the opportunity to engage Schaeffer’s ideas and to demonstrate by argument the flaws in his thought.

A second example of Fendrich’s too-easy binary: “Yet the Renaissance is poorly understood if it’s confined to celebrating such geniuses as Michelangelo, Raphael or Leonardo, or to talking about how the age “freed” man from the shackles of medieval religion and thought. In opening the way for modern natural science, for political systems (like democracy) that are based on individual rights of man instead of the divine right of kings, and in making it the responsibility of human beings to construct their world, it was, in a word, scary.”

Note that the ironic-distancing quotation marks in Fendrich’s first sentence appear only around the word “freed”–not around the shackles of medieval religion and thought.

Fendrich concludes her essay:

“I agree with liberals who find Michele Bachmann a dangerous politician figure who would make an awful President. Anyone who would say, as she did, in the spring of 2009, “I find it interesting that it was back in the nineteen-seventies that the swine flu broke out then under another Democrat President, Jimmy Carter. And I’m not blaming this on President Obama—I just think it’s an interesting coincidence,” thinks that correlation is the same as cause-and-effect. This is the kind of Medievalism that is really scary in a modern political figure.”

Fendrich proceeds from a number of assumptions throughout this essay, but by far the most damaging is her acceptance that Schaeffer (and Bachmann) are more or less accurately living according to a medieval religious philosophy. Her criticism of Schaeffer, then, begins from a false substitution-by-analogy–Schaeffer is to postmodern secular humanism as medieval is to Renaissance.  One can argue that Schaeffer’s wrong for a number of reasons, but if one proceeds from the assumption that he is ‘irrational,’ ‘anti-intellectual,’ and ‘stupid’ why then assume that he’s correct in allying himself to a previous historical period? To put it simply, why assume that Schaeffer is correct only insofar as he asserts a “medievalness” to his philosophy? To do so is, at best, to be guilty of the same sort of faulty correlative deductions that Bachmann herself makes.


1 Comment

Filed under Early Modern, Medievalism, Pop Culture, Religion

Primitivism and the Warrior

My major project for the next few weeks is to write and, with luck, complete an article on accommodating the recent spate of Beowulf films in teaching Anglo-Saxon literature. This involves tracking down the little that’s been written on the topic, learning a bit about film theory, limbering up my pedagogy-speak, sifting through some recent Beowulf scholarship for some important bits I’ll be using, and reviewing my own notes on the poem from grad school and several years’ teaching (my undergraduate notes on medieval literature were, mercifully, almost entirely destroyed in a house fire in 1998; this conveniently allows me to complain bitterly about losing all that hard work without the awkwardness of actually having to confront just how bad most of it was). It also involves re-viewing the six films that have been released in the last dozen years–and believe me, that’s going to be the hardest part of the whole project. I’ll undoubtedly be reviewing them here; pain shared, after all, is pain divided. Or sadism made manifest. Perhaps a miniseries is in order–can one write a miniseries on a blog?

Among the articles I’ve collected is Stephen T. Asma’s reflection on the 2007 Zemeckis Beowulf in the context of other releases of the same time (Snyder’s 300; the HBO Rome series) which seemed to be about unfettered (i.e., pre-Christian) masculinity. Asma’s point seems to be that modern interpretations of these stories are, inevitably, colored by contemporary masculinities–so that the Zemeckis Beowulf is defeated not by his own arrogance or the inevitability of senescence, but by a weakness of moral character. As Asma notes, the modern movie Beowulf is “basically a jerk, whose most sympathetic moment is when he finally realizes that he’s a jerk.” The article is rather brilliantly titled “Never Mind Grendel. Can Beowulf Conquer the 21st Century Guilt Trip?”1 and you can read it if you have a Chronicle of Higher Education subscription. There’s a lot of food for thought there, and in general I agree with Asma’s conclusions–particularly his point that this “Nietzschean version” of Beowulf is no more a construction than (and, in some ways, not all that different from) the Tolkien version that preceded it. I’ll have more to say about this when I get to the film.

In the meantime, I’m boiling a bit about the other “hit” I got when looking up Asma’s article on the Chronicle site—a letter responding to the article, titled “An Afterlife for Beowulf.” I could (and do) take exception to the author’s reading of the poem as a whole, but what got my dander up was, predictably, the apparently unintentional condescension toward medieval culture. In a short letter, the author manages to work in two descriptions of medieval culture and writers as “primitive”; given the context, it’s hard to imagine this was meant even in the problematic Victorian “noble savage” mode. The reference comes when the author, having already mentioned that his interest in Beowulf stems in the main from an interest in Tolkien and Seamus Heaney, posits that an “important theme [runs] through the story: The pre-Christian fixations on gold and reputation can be read as a primitive longing for something that does not die.” In the following paragraph, he echoes this statement: “In Beowulf we see, among many other things, a primitive warrior culture groping for something beyond this world.”

Look. I could spend all day going into detail about why this is not a useful comment, and enjoy myself thoroughly in the process. But in fact, shorn of its benighted adjectives, the point is entirely valid. Let’s try that first sentence again without the disdainful attitude: “The fixations on gold and reputation can be read as a longing for something that does not die.” This is, I think, a reading that most of us would be happy to have our students walk away from Beowulf with–not the final word, perhaps, but a reasonable and illuminating approach to understanding the text. One can even imagine turning this analysis around on moments such as Hrothgar’s farewell speech to Beowulf and the search for an “eternal” monument that does not rely on wealth or fame.

So why a primitive culture? Three possible responses leap to mind in response to this kind of thing (four, really, but since our own culture does not highly prize dueling with large axes, let’s stick with three). The first is to add this to the poisonous collected wordhord most medievalists nurture somewhere behind their bile ducts–the same heap where we keep Pulp Fiction’s sodomy, CNN’s descriptions of war zones, and anything by or about Jacob Burckhardt. The second is to make a lengthy and impassioned argument concerning the complexity of Anglo-Saxon (or late Roman, or Byzantine, or Abbasid Caliphate, or Carolingian, or Scandinavian, or Ethiopian) culture; this might perhaps include a few salient remarks about the comparative values implied by, say, Germanic feud culture and the modern American prison system.

The third option, of greater interest and probably more illuminating, is to consider whether contrasting the culture of Beowulf with our own is less useful than considering whether they’re all that different in the ways the author means. Let’s briefly investigate just what is being called “primitive” here:
The desire for fame? A 2009 survey2 showed that the top three dream careers of modern British children are Sports Star, Pop Star, and Actor.
The obsession with mortality and the possibility of immortality? Visit a cemetery sometime. Better yet, visit a cryogenics lab, or the Immortality Institute’s website.3
The question of (or desire for) life after death? Religious institutions still argue for this with some force, and a comfortable majority of Americans believe in some form of an afterlife.
The pursuit of wealth? I’ll forgo the dubious pleasures of laying bare the soul of modern capitalism, a task for which I am not professionally or temperamentally suited; I do, however, enjoy the minor irony that this letter was written early in 2008, just as the worldwide economy was about to crash down due to the unbridled pursuit of unearned riches. The dangers of the dragon’s den, indeed…

So the question is—does treating Beowulf as an artifact of a “primitive” culture demonstrate a lack of understanding of that culture, or a (possibly warranted) cynicism about our own?

All right, I’m off to re-watch the first of six Beowulf movies and take notes. Wish me luck…



Leave a comment

Filed under Anglo-Saxon, Beowulf, Pop Culture, Uncategorized

The “medieval turn” in Ice Hockey

While the medievalists of Massachusetts are busy working on our various summer projects, we’re also being hopelessly distracted by the ongoing drama of the Stanley Cup finals. Obviously, we’re a bit partial here at MassMedieval (I, for one, am wearing my Bruins sweatshirt while typing this), and since it’s unlikely that I’ll be able to keep from thinking about tonight’s game, it’s time to talk ice hockey.

A contest recognizable as the modern game of ice hockey can only be reliably traced back to the 19th century, when it was already a popular pastime among Canadians.  The origins of the game, however, go back much, much further, with roots in medieval sport and even older games. Most people who have given thought to the matter argue (sometimes passionately) that hockey belongs among the descendants of one of three games: hurling, bandy, or kolf. I, armed with half an hour’s research in the OED and Encyclopedia Britannica and the iron-clad hubris of the blogging medievalist, offer the following assessment.

First, there are these “ancestor” games. Hurling, for those unfamiliar with this terrifying sport, is a game played in Ireland, and has been for a long, long time. It’s actually pre-historic, having been around since before records of Celtic activity on the island, and may stretch back more than 3000 years. The legends of Cú Chulainn and Fionn Mac Cumhail both include reference to games of hurling, and the game is referenced in documents surviving from every period of Irish history. It’s known to have been brought to North America by Irish immigrants in the 18th and 19th centuries, and remains a niche game in many cities with a history of Irish immigration.

Why is it terrifying? Well, it’s played with sticks called hurleys, with which players pass or hit a hard ball (the sliotar, pronounced approximately as “slither”) at speeds approaching 100 miles per hour while trying to work their way to the opposing team’s net…and only last year did the Gaelic Athletic Association mandate that players must wear helmets during match play. Interestingly, the sliotar, when it’s not being called “a hard missile moving at speeds capable of shattering bone,” is often colloquially referred to as the “puck.”

The second contender is bandy, a Russian game dating back to 11th century monasteries. The modern game does date back at least to the 17th century, though, and hasn’t changed a great deal since. The game, like hurling, is played with a cork-center hard ball hit with sticks; unlike hurling, bandy is played on an ice surface, and has offside, substitution, and face-off rules similar to those of ice hockey. Its playing field size, however, is massive (closer to the size of a soccer field than to an ice hockey rink), and, like hurling, it involves many more players in-game at any one time than ice hockey.


Kolf, the third game sometimes mentioned in connection with ice hockey, seems to me to have much the weakest claim to kinship. The game of kolf is of medieval, or possibly pre-medieval, Dutch origin, and resembles a combination of croquet, shuffleboard, quoits, and curling. While it is most frequently played on an ice surface, its resemblance to hockey is otherwise questionable (it’s a lot closer to golf, as its name may suggest)—and no one seems to be able to substantiate the connection in any case. Unable to work out any satisfying reason for the supposed link between hockey and kolf, I did a little Googling (is that the appropriate verb form?); most of the connections I found were either highly speculative or parroted a Wikipedia entry (even to the extent of repeating a typo from the entry over and over again). Wiki-creep aside, no one seems to have any valid reason for including kolf in the conversation (though I’m not ruling out a global conspiracy of Netherlandish kolf enthusiasts protecting a secret list of kolf’s descendants hidden under an inverted pyramid in a museum in Utrecht. Has anyone checked the underside of the Stanley Cup for cryptoglyphs?).

An intriguing possibility is that ice hockey may actually be a hybrid of both bandy and hurling—another team sport called bando, highly popular in Wales by the 18th century, appears to have followed this route, having been adapted from games with characteristics of both sports (bandy through importation of the game by Britist sportsmen, and hurling through its Scots cousin shinty). Though the rules and play of bando aren’t entirely understood today, the game involved teams of players using sticks very similar to modern ice hockey sticks to bat a ball around a field laid out in the usual rectangular shape. The game was apparently hugely popular in Wales and may have been known elsewhere in the British Isles. If hurling and bandy jointly inspired bando, what are the chances that other games—some unrecorded, some surviving—were similarly derived? And how likely is it that hockey deserves an invite to the Bandy/Hurling family reunion?

Now, the OED steps in here with an interesting tidbit: the word “hockey” used in connection with a team sport can first be found in a single Galway document dated to 1527 and catalogued in 1885 during a survey of historical manuscripts undertaken by royal commission under Victoria. The manuscript records a statute banning the play of a game (probably either hurling or a closely related game) described as “the horlinge of [a] litill balle with hockie stickes or staves”; since the reference here appears to be to a kind of stick called a hockie rather than to a game by that name, speculation has been offered about the likelihood that the name derives from the Old French word hoquet, a kind of shepherd’s crook. Unfortunately, there is no direct evidence linking hoquet staves to the 1527 game—and, frustratingly, there isn’t another surviving reference to an equivalent game (or stick) called “hockey” for three hundred years, when William Holloway records a game called “hawkey” played with “hawkey-bats” and a ball; this is, I would suspect, most likely another of the stick-and-ball games related to either bandy or hurling. At least one 19th century observer agreed—an 1857 edition of Chambers’ Information for the People  (also cited in the OED) noted that “Shinty in Scotland, Hockey in England, and Hurling in Ireland seem to be very much the same out-of-door sport.”

One last (and, from what I can tell, unlikely) possibility is that the modern game is actually an invention of the New World, and may have only a thin cloak of rules and regulations imported by Europeans. Stick-and-ball games were certainly known to the indigenous North American peoples, and a number of them are recorded. There are even hints of games more directly akin to ice hockey being played; in 1865, for example, the quirky archeologist John Lubbock wrote in his Pre-Historic Times that an informant had observed Eskimo children “playing hockey on the ice.” While this is certainly possible, it is impossible to know whether this game predated European contact—John Franklin, the explorer, wrote in 1825 that his men enjoyed “the game of hockey played on the ice” while exploring northwestern Canada. And in any case, a degree of convergent evolution is entirely possible–after all, we’re talking about using sticks to hit things across the ice. To work out that this is fun, you really only need sticks, things, and ice.

Taken all in all, it seems most likely that ice hockey, though recognizable in its current form for only a couple of centuries, has a lineage that stretches back much further—to Tudor English folk contests, medieval Russian monks’ pastimes,  Celtic warriors’ sports, with perhaps a hint of indigenous peoples’ games in the New World. There’s a “medieval turn” to the sport after all…or, at least, that’s my story—and as a medievalist rooting hard for Boston tonight, I’m sticking to it.

Go Bruins!



1 Comment

Filed under History, Pop Culture